Last month I wrote about Environmental Grief
. Given the recent devastation wrought by Hurricane Ida and the relationship between stronger storms and global warming, I am expanding on the topic this month:
As many of us bear witness to the death of our planet, we mourn. But how? Humans do not have processes in place to deal with the grief and anxiety that many of us feel. The death of a loved one, whether sudden or the result of years of illness, is difficult to accept, but can happen. As such, societies have mechanisms in place to deal with those losses. Death and mourning of loved ones is part of our culture–we are not immortal and expect that one day, we will all meet the same fate.
Those of us left behind must relearn our physical world, reexamine the places we took for granted and how they have changed. I believe the process of environmental grief is similar. Let’s consider the disappearance of the Amazon rainforest: somber images of clear-cut old-growth jungle replaced by palm oil trees can elicit feelings of great sadness and grief. Those sections of the Amazon will never, not even with the most aggressive feats of geoengineering, be restored to what they once were. Places that we once took for granted disappear, and there’s no codified procedure for processing those feelings. Those feelings of anxiety and anger mingled with anticipation for the devastation to come are jumbled together and there is seemingly little any one human can do to change things. Without mourning rituals, these feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and anger seem out-of-place, misunderstood, or inappropriate, resulting in a kind of mental stasis where acceptance and closure never happens. Nor, then, is their healing or the cultivation of resilience.
Keeping that premise in mind, how can a community effectively mourn the disappearance of a natural phenomenon? It turns out that relearning a relationship with a physical space is possible when reconciling eco grief: in 2019, two funerals were held–the first in Iceland, the other in the Swiss Alps–to mourn the loss of glaciers to climate change. The Okjokull glacier was the first of its kind in Iceland to be declared dead in 2014. The glacier once measured over 6.2 square miles, but by 2012 had dwindled to .7 square miles. Researchers from Iceland and professors at Rice University organized the event, which involved trekking up a volcano near the site of the former glacier and memorializing the loss. Unlike an increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the disappearance of a glacier is tangible–satellite images from space confirm it–not to mention that barren rock covers land once frozen by ice is a physical manifestation that is impossible to ignore. “You don’t feel climate change daily, it’s something that happens slowly on a human scale, but very quickly on a geological scale,” said a funeral attendee in a report published by The Guardian. “Seeing a glacier disappear is something you can feel, you can understand it and it’s pretty visual,” he said.
Hardly a month later, hundreds of people dressed in black gathered in the Swiss Alps for another memorial, this time for the Pizol glacier, where a priest officiated and mourners paid their respects by leaving bouquets of flowers where Pizol once loomed. Since 2006, the Pizol glacier lost nearly 90% of its volume and is the first glacier to be removed from the Swiss glacier surveillance network. Had the pandemic not shut down in-person activities, would we have seen further such demonstrations through 2020 and 2021? Will there be more glacier funerals in the future?
Until recently, climate change was slow and abstract: it’s been awfully hard to encourage people and governments to enact policies meant to prevent climate disasters when the pace of change seemed incremental or invisible. Winters with slightly less snow? No big deal, until thirty years goes by and residents of traditionally-snow-covered terrain find themselves with mud instead.
This kind of slow or invisible change is hard to mourn in real time and also makes it challenging to mobilize efforts to combat it. If you can’t see it, it’s hard to get upset about it.
Until you do. Until the day a farmer wakes up to fields inundated with river water. When fires burn so hot that they spawn their own weather systems. When a spring morning is eerily bereft of birdsong. When there’s more plastic in the ocean than fish.
[Excerpted from my forthcoming book (Routledge, 2022) on how populist leaders are destroying the Earth.]